Noteworthy Voices 2-MIN. READ

Trust Me: Using Multisensory Learning in Mathematics and Reading

By: Elizabeth "Liz" Peyser 04/23/2024
Discover the importance of incorporating sensory learning into lessons to build students’ trust in math and reading concepts.
Students using math manipulatives are engaged in multi-sensory learning activities.

I had a “smell-stone” today, or what my husband refers to as a smelling milestone, when I smelled coffee brewing. A year ago, I lost my sense of taste and smell to COVID-19 for about six months. Losing those senses impaired my understanding of the world around me. I couldn’t tell if the milk in the fridge had soured. I couldn’t taste anything I cooked. And I couldn’t detect a gas leak when the alarm went off. My husband was annoyed when I asked him to smell or taste something for me. “It’s fine,” he said. “Just trust me.” But I couldn’t—not without smelling it or tasting it myself. My inherent lack of trust paralleled what I was seeing in classrooms, also a result of the pandemic. Hint: It ties to sensory learning and how we explore the world through all our senses, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Hardwired for Mathematics

Whether we realize it or not, humans are hardwired to do mathematics. In prehistoric days, we could assess how many predators were on the horizon, whether we could outrun them, how far a food source was, and if there was enough to share with the group. We used our mathematics brains to calculate quantity, distance, rate, and division for survival without even thinking about it.

Today, we judge distance while driving, estimate quantities needed to feed our families, and make sure the pieces of cake are divided evenly. We make these decisions based on multisensory environmental inputs: sight, touch, talking, and listening. But without all these senses, we don’t learn as deeply, and that has had an impact.

Trusting the Fundamentals of Mathematics

In classrooms, I’ve noticed that Grade 2 students need support in understanding place value—specifically, making a 10 from 10 ones and decomposing a 10 into 10 ones. They don’t trust that a ten rod is really a 10. Adding 32 plus 18 on a hundreds chart is a challenge. They don’t understand that 18 is one 10 and eight ones. They can’t track a decade row for the 10 and count eight ones to land on 50. They don’t trust that a decade row is really 10.

However, they can easily stack the numbers and add them procedurally to get a sum of 50. Huh. They can get an answer without knowing what “regrouping” and the “little ones” they’re writing are all about. Watching students rely on procedures without fully comprehending the concept of tens and ones made me think of future implications that require decomposition of numbers, such as regrouping in subtraction, three-digit computation, and multi-digit multiplication.

Sensory Learning Examples

One of the reasons Grade 2 students don’t implicitly trust the procedures is that they likely didn’t have multisensory interactions with mathematical concepts in pre-K and Grade K during virtual instruction. They didn’t experience putting together 10 ones to make one 10 in their homes. They didn’t lay their hands on concrete objects or have the rich experience of working with their peers to fill a ten-frame.

As we continue to see declining enrollments in pre-K and Grade K, it’s imperative that we make the most of the time we have with students and include essential multisensory learning to improve conceptual understanding. Here are a few ideas:

  • Use concrete objects, colorful visuals, and hands-on mathematics discussions.
  • Have students fill a five-frame with objects. Ask, “How many are there? Can you show me on your fingers?”
  • Use linking cubes. Ask, “Can you link them together to make a train? How long is it?”
  • Use linking cubes to fill a ten-frame and ask the same questions.

In Grade 1, repeat the ten-frame and use different-colored linking cubes so students can see “partners” to make 10, as in seven blue and three red.

  • Introduce the base-ten block ten rod. Compare the cube train made of 10 ones to a ten rod. It will be bigger, but it will have 10 spaces. Ask, “How many are in this rod? How do you know?” and “Can you prove there are 10 in that rod?”
  • Ask, “Where can you count 10 on the hundreds chart?” Have students count the first row.
  • Ask, “How is that like the ten-frame and the ten rod? Can you show me three groups of 10 with your rods? And three groups of 10 on your hundreds chart?”

Why Sensory Learning?

Using tactile objects, highly visual models, and deep-thinking questions will elevate students’ understanding of place value and build trust that 32 is three tens and two ones. Spending time on multisensory learning with our primary students to strengthen their mathematics skills has a dual benefit: It also predicts later reading skills. The areas of the mathematics brain that recognize shapes are repurposed to recognize and put together letters in reading. Creating spaces where environmental inputs help them make sense of the mathematics taps into their mathematics brains and helps them trust learning. This helps them master concepts not only today but also further down the road.

Want to hear more from Liz? Check out her episode of the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast.